The skeptical state senator from Chesapeake, Va., was having no talk of seat belts.

On Thursday night, when a neurosurgeon graphically described to a Senate Transportation Committee the head injuries common to accident victims who don't wear seat belts, Sen. William Parker (D-Chesapeake) suggested that maybe drivers ought to be required to wear helmets, just as motorcyclists are.

Besides, Parker said, "I happen to have claustrophobia. I have a horror of seat belts."

And so did the entire committee, which that same evening killed a mandatory seat-belt bill for Virginia that had already passed the House and had been given a good chance of passing the full Senate -- if it had gotten that far.

Instead, the bill ran into a powerful force that helps to shape much of the legislation that comes out of this conservative and tradition-bound legislature -- an abhorrence of being told what to do by the federal government brought about by a highly developed sense that people should control their own destiny.

"I am a free citizen in a free society," said one witness at the committee's public hearing, who concluded by saying that she also was a Christian whose fate lies with God. "When the Lord's ready for us, he takes us home."

Transportation Committee Chairman Charles Waddell (D-Loudoun) was one of six members who supported the mandatory seat-belt bill. He wondered aloud after the 9-to-6 vote in committee that killed the bill how some senators could have voted to raise the drinking age to 21 this year to save 20 lives a year, but then opposed a seat-belt bill that experts said would have saved more than 200. "It's odd, isn't it?" Waddell asked.

But the potential benefits of the bill, unsuccessfully sponsored for the third year by Del. J. Samuel Glasscock (D-Suffolk), did not seem to be the issue in the committee. Even the opponents agreed that seat belts would certainly save hundreds of lives each year and millions of dollars now spent on taking care of injured persons.

"I don't think anybody would dispute that," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who opposed the bill.

Instead, the senators were reacting to what they saw as coercion by the federal government on the issue. The federal Department of Transportation has warned that it may force automobile makers to install airbags by 1989 if states with two-thirds of the country's population do not enact mandatory seat-belt laws before then.

"It's blackmail. I resent it quite a bit," said Parker.

Virginia would have been only the fourth state to enact such a law since that DOT edict, following New York, New Jersey and Illinois.

The seat-belt bill was approved by the House initially in January by a 59-to-37 vote, but then was narrowly passed on a final vote the next day by a 51-to-49 margin.

Several members said the closer-than-expected final vote was caused by two factors. Some members actually in favor of the measure were jokingly voting against it to tease Glasscock for his long fight to pass the bill, they said. They were then shocked by the close vote.

Others said that though state delegates were willing to vote for the bill in the initial showing of hands, they were reluctant to officially record their vote in favor of the controversial measure on final passage. "It was a little of each," one House aide said.

When some senators mentioned they had received angry mail from constituents opposing the bill, Glass-cock quietly noted that he would accept all the angry mail just to get one "thank you" letter from a person whose life had been saved by the bill.

Glasscock said he would bring the bill back to the 1986 legislature.